Live at Royal Park Cellars on Saturday, 19th March 2011
There is an atmosphere in the dank cellar beneath the Royal Park pub that owes less to the faint smell of rot and alcohol hanging in the air than it does to the pervading feeling amongst all present that this event is the beginning of something exciting: A night of music organized by the bands themselves in the heart of Hyde Park, with a sense of community and mutual respect amongst audience and musicians alike.
Opening act Empire Safari have a cohesion and clarity of sound that I was lucky enough to witness once before several months ago. It is a shame then, that their set tonight is marred by technical problems. It begins well enough; a hypnotic guitar hook gives way to strong vocal interplay between band members, I failed to note the quality of their harmonies last time I was in the Safari audience and it is evident tonight, despite the poor sound quality in the room. As before, a competent performance becomes something all together more enticing with the introduction of a forth member and keyboard player who takes to the stage for the second song. Safari are galvanised by his presence into more intricate arrangements that lose none of their accessibility and forward momentum. The keyboard lines are intelligent and complimentary to their clean, tight sound and help widen an overall live mix that feels unusually thin. Lady Luck, however, is not fighting Empire Safari's corner tonight, and early into a cover of Massive Attack's 'Teardrop' a dreadful guitar malfunction transforms the song into an extended musical interlude that becomes a frustrating soundtrack to the battle between man and instrument. The crowd respond to Safari's plight emphatically, with an impromptu sing-along that hardly makes their ill fortune look like a mistake at all. After about 8 minutes of Teardrop (that riff has some serious mileage, I'll have you know), Safari perform one more number before leaving the stage looking deflated. I am glad to have paid witness to Empire Safari in better circumstances prior to this particular performance, and it is a shame to think that some members of the audience may judge their worth on a set occasionally mauled by problems beyond the band's control.
Oddly, the sound issues in the cellar appear to have been fully solved by the time Not Great Men take to the stage. They are a bass heavy outfit that remind me in good ways of Wire, and occasionally, Joy Division. One of their guitarists bears more than a passing resemblance to Strokes string-slinger Nick Valensi and the intelligent orchestration of Not Great Men's guitar parts (and their coolly self-assured stage presence) is a fitting homage to the audible influence of that particular band. Not Great Men are at their best when their tight and rhythmic grooves match vocalist Sam's equally percussive delivery; I imagine 'Angular' is an adjective frequently used to describe this band, and it would be a fitting one to utilise. Some of the post-song posturing feels a little try hard ('This song is about the BNP, so if you don't like it you can f*ck off'), but the vocals (and by extension, the lyrics) quickly blend into the rest of the instrumentation and become secondary to the interplay between the band members. Not Great Men's best numbers are their more progressive; songs where they play with structure and meter and allow themselves to be faintly self indulgent. It is during these tracks that they transcend into something more interesting and vital that their simpler (that is not to say poorer) arrangements only hint at.
By the time Cables Cause Fires arrive, the energy in the tiny room is palpable. If Not Great Men are angular, Cables cut with fractions so acute that their restless groove is scored into the collective consciousness of the attending audience like a hacksaw. They deliver a lesson in controlled noise: half reggae grooves are adopted and quickly abandoned for breakneck chugging, while in their mellower moments the guitar lines resemble the stream of conscious noodling of The Mars Volta's Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. Their vocalist appears fearless, what a front man he is. Lyrics are spat with such ferocity that their physical sensation is more important than their pitch or musicality. The kinetic energy of Cables performance relents only when they deliver a semi-acoustic (but no less grimy) cover of Radiohead's 'Karma Police', an interlude that is almost certainly fan service, but fan service at its highest quality nonetheless. What strikes me most about Cables Cause Fires, almost more than their music, is the lack of posturing on display in their performance. They make no attempts to appear more authentic than they are by default; they wear nothing that would mark them out as disciples of a particular scene or movement other than the badge of their own distinction, which they wear proudly.
Tonight's performance feels like something exciting, something vital and honest from all bands involved. It feels borne out of frustration with the impersonality of a sometimes-exasperating music scene. As long as this event keeps running I will attend it, and that is the biggest compliment I can give.
Post-punk from Leeds
Oxford four-piece, currently based in Leeds